Sunday, October 11, 2015

EXCERPT 2 FROM ‘VOICES IN THE STORM’ – DESTINY


The following is an excerpt from Chapter Two of the memoir I’m currently writing, entitled Voices in the Storm: A Journalist’s Memoir, about my early days in Buenos Aires. This entry describes the events leading up to my decision, following discharge from the US Army, to move “for a year” to Argentina. I hope you enjoy it and look forward to your comments.
Back from the Army
As I say, the decision to move to Buenos Aires was a long time coming. It hadn’t by any means been a foregone conclusion when my wife and I married three years before. Nor had it been when I first got out of the Army. My loosely structured plan had been to go back to exactly what I’d been doing before the Army interrupted my life, to return to being a nightclub musician five or six nights a week and to give private music lessons in the daytime, while seeking a way to return to college and get a dual degree in music and creative writing or journalism. I mean, I wanted to go back to Argentina for a while someday soon, but there were some other priorities I had to take care of first: education, a career, security, a pathway toward my ultimate dreams.
But then one hot summer day, on the way to my new job in the shoe department of a K-Mart store in Lima, Ohio—which wasn’t at all part of the plan I had outlined for myself—the decision kind of took itself. I can't pretend it was a revelation, exactly. But suffice it to say that just before arriving at work, I had to pull my VW Beetle off into the parking lot of the Westgate Lanes bowling alley, where I promptly stripped off my tie, ripped the collar button off of my shirt and then sat there gripping the wheel with both hands until my cold, sweaty knuckles turned white. I was hyper-ventilating like mad while my heart pounded like a trip-hammer and the blood sang in my ears so loudly that I couldn't hear the roar of the traffic whizzing by me on ever-busy North Cable Road. I was suffocating—almost literally.  Nothing, I realized, was turning out the way I’d planned. My young life was swiftly going down the toilet. Since I’d been away, the world had drastically changed. Now, I too was in desperate need of a change—for the better.
It wasn't the first time this had happened to me in that fateful 1973, the year they shipped me home from Europe and discharged me after a three-year tour in the US Army. Nor was the choice of Buenos Aires some wild whim. In fact, the series of events leading to this decision had developed almost in the manner of a Shakespearean comedy of errors ever since the winter of 1968, the year I graduated from high school. That was the same year that Virginia Mel, my future wife, came from Buenos Aires to my high school in Wapakoneta, Ohio, as an exchange student with the Youth for Understanding program.
It wasn’t like she hadn’t tried to get out of it, when they told her where they were sending her. Who wouldn’t? I mean, why would any young foreign person want to go to Wapakoneta, Ohio, when there were such well-known and fascinating places in the United States, as, say, New York, Washington, LA, Chicago or San Francisco?
Long story short, however, her sponsor talked her into it. He said, “Virginia, you’re the luckiest candidate of all. You’re going to have a unique experience, totally different from the ones the kids going to big cities will have. I think you should take this destination. It’s fate.”
  So she came, somewhat reluctantly, to Wapakoneta in the winter of 1968, having finished high school in her own country a couple of months before. My attraction to her was immediate and powerful. Her American “sister” (the children of the homes where exchange students stayed were referred to as their “sisters” and “brothers”) was a childhood friend of mine, so although my friend, Jeanie, had already arranged to use her mother’s station wagon to take Virginia to her welcome party at a local gun club that had been booked for the occasion, I talked her into making up some excuse why she would be arriving later, so that I could stand in as designated driver for the guest of honor. 
Virginia (right) "luckiest of all"
Late that afternoon, I picked Virginia up at Jeanie’s house in my sleek, waxed and polished, ’61 Dodge Pioneer. I was proud of my car. I had worked since I was twelve and was now eighteen and doing well for myself as a professional musician, musical instrument salesman and private percussion teacher, besides going to high school. This was the second car I had owned in as many years, and a real step up from the rust-laced ’57 Dodge Royal that I had previously purchased for fifty bucks when I was barely sixteen. So I felt flattered when I held open the passenger-side door for her to get in and she said, “What a beautiful car!”
For a while, that was pretty much the extent of our conversation. We both felt shy and couldn’t think what to say. She was so beautiful that I felt awkward and unworthy. The gun club was about eight miles away, out in the country. It was a leisurely drive on two-lane country roads and I tried to think of something to ask her about her country or herself that wouldn’t make me sound like a stupid jerk from the outset, but my mind was a blank. Suddenly, she broke the ice.
A sleek waxed and polished '61 Dodge Pioneer
She said, “Would it bother you if I smoked?”
In response, I smiled, reached into the inside pocket of the winter coat I was wearing, and took out my Philip Morris Multi-filters in their classy plastic box, thumbed open the lid one-handed and shook a cigarette part way out, offering it to her. “Here,” I said, “have one of mine.” I handed her my fashionable, grown-up, Ronson gas lighter and watched out of the corner of my eye as she lit up. It seemed to me that I had never seen a more beautiful or sophisticated profile and I knew right then that I was in love. Using the car lighter, I lit a smoke for myself and opened the ashtray on the dash between us.
For a few seconds we smoked in silence. But then we started to talk and now the words came easier. The first thing she said was that her accent embarrassed her. I said that she hardly had one, that her English was excellent, “kind of British,” and that, anyway, I thought her Spanish accent was charming.
We had started out with plenty of time to get to the gun club. It was winter and the sun was already setting, but, on the spur of the moment, I decided to show my exotic guest some local color. So I drove a few miles out of our way and took her to see Grand Lake Saint Marys. With its thirteen thousand five hundred acres, Lake Saint Marys had once been the largest man-made lake in the United States and remained the largest inland lake in Ohio. It was built in the early eighteen-hundreds as a reservoir for the Miami and Erie Canal system, which carried cargo on mule-towed barges the length of the territory, from the Ohio River in the south to Lake Erie in the north, before the days of railroads.
Virginia was duly impressed, and it was a stunning winter evening so I parked and we took a walk along the now frosty shore in the abandoned state park grounds, where picnickers, water skiers, boating enthusiasts, anglers and beach-goers thronged in summer. It was freezing cold and daylight was fading fast, the sun now a creamy ember-orange glint on a snow-clouded horizon beyond the lake. But we strolled there in the dusk for a time and watched the last light of a stunning Midwestern winter day reflected on the breeze-ruffled surface of the water that was frozen along the edges. When we got back into the car to go to the gun club for the welcome party, it was as if we already had a tacit understanding between us. We liked each other…a lot.    
Despite countless efforts by Virginia’s surrogate American “mother” to get her to go out with other boys, we fell in love, and by the time graduation rolled around months later, we were doing what was known then as “going steady". There was even a picture of us in the high school year book, dressed in evening wear, at the Junior-Senior Prom. The theme for the dance was “Around the World” and the caption read: “Virginia Mel and Dan Newland are shown deciding what country to visit next on their round-the-world prom trip.”

Such Sweet Sorrow
The last time we went out together before she left town to return to Argentina following graduation turned out to be an oddly fateful experience—one that made us both think deeply about life and death and our own parting. I had taken Virginia out to a steakhouse called The Buckingham, in nearby Lima, for a fancy dinner, not with wine, of course, but with a glass of what was then known as three-two beer, which, at age eighteen, was all we were entitled to drink. But tonight Virginia and I felt very adult, like the protagonists of a romantic novel.
Virginia and Dan at prom night:
The theme was 'Around the World'
 Even so, it hardly felt like a celebration. We were both in a state of something like mourning, since we had fallen hard for each other and in the last months of her stay, had become deeply intimate and inseparable friends. Her leaving to go back home, halfway around the world, seemed a definitive and final event. It was indeed possible that this would be the last time we would ever see one another. The thought filled us both with a kind of dispair, but also with fateful resignation. While she thought we would never see each other again, however, I—eternal optimist that I was back then—had already convinced myself that we would, and I told her so. She refused to believe it. Her face was so sad and beautiful that I felt my heart would break when I looked into her eyes.
Now, we were headed back toward Wapak. She had to pack, get ready to leave the next day, spend a little time with her host family. I knew I had to get her back early, but I didn’t want the ride to end. So I bypassed I-75 South, which would have had us back in under twenty minutes, and decided to take the longest back way home that I knew, along country roads and county pikes on that warm summer evening.
It was as we were coming over a rise on one of those roads, somewhere between Lima and the village of Saint Johns, that I found myself face to face with another car, coming at us head-on in our lane. The other vehicle was a brand new American Motors Javelin, a hot car of the day that would garner success and recognition in Trans Am racing—just not this particular unit, which ended its days as a pile of junk on the side of that otherwise quiet country road. It would later be established that the driver was “test driving” his new car accompanied by his girlfriend, that he was moving at a speed high enough for the State Highway Patrol to consider it “reckless operation”, that he was passing on a blind hill and curve, and that I had done everything possible to avert a head-on collision.
I had started driving farm machinery when I was fourteen, having worked a few weeks on a spread west of town that year, helping harvest winter wheat. I had also secretly driven older friends’ cars on country roads after that, before I was old enough to have a license, and had practiced with my father in the family station wagon once I had a learner’s permit. I bought my first car a few weeks before I aced my driving test at sixteen. Since then, as a professional musician, I had put a couple of thousand miles a month on my car, driving to nightclub gigs and to schools in other towns, where I gave private percussion lessons after classes. So I had a lot of driving experience by eighteen and had also taken driver’s education in school to get even more. I had an eye and a talent for it. I was clearly no stranger to the road, yet all I could think of when I saw that Javelin coming at us head-on at, perhaps, ninety miles an hour or more was, “We’re dead!”
At the last second, however, my young reflexes won out. In a heartbeat, I managed to get two wheels and Virginia’s half of the car onto the berm, so that the point of impact was on my side. The other driver also swerved at the last second and we took the crash force at right about the driver’s side headlight. The fact that we both swerved meant that the impact was a glancing blow, after which the lightweight Javelin continued, in the manner of a thunderbolt stripping the bark from the trunk of a tree, ricocheting off of the heavy frame and body of the solid Dodge, while I managed to hold my ground and keep us from rolling into the deep ditch off of the right side. The battering ram sideswiping motion of the high-speed Javelin was so powerful that it drove the heavy door and frame of the Dodge in better than six inches, so that the armrest cracked one of my ribs and knocked me temporarily out from in front of the wheel (there were no seatbelts back when my car was built). I managed to keep my hands on the wheel, however, and to bring the car under control, coming to a complete stop on the gravel berm and grassy bank of the ditch. The Javelin continued to careen out of control for another couple hundred feet, before it rolled once, sailed off the road and landed right side up at the bottom of the deep ditch.
For a moment, there was just silence. Still gripping the wheel, I turned to look at Virginia. She was sitting there looking blank and stunned. I tried to see if she was bleeding anywhere. She didn’t seem to be. Incredibly, the windshield was still in one piece. Our side windows had been rolled down. So the only shattered glass was all over the backseat, from the breakage of all of the rear windows.
“Are you all right?” I asked. Virginia just looked at me. “Are you all right?” I asked again, louder this time and taking her by the shoulders.
She nodded. “Yes,” she said, “I think so.”
Automatically, I tried to open my door, but since it was crushed in halfway to the steering wheel, it obviously wouldn’t budge. We got out on Virginia’s side and she stood in the grass by the Dodge, while I made as if to walk back along to road toward the Javelin. It was only then that I felt the sharp pain in my side. I touched my shirt under my left arm with my opposite hand and the tip of my finger came back bloody. I pressed there again and winced with the pain. Despite the heat, I reached into the backseat, retrieved my blazer, shook the glass off of it and put it on to conceal the injury before walking back to the other car. I didn’t plan to spend my last evening with Virginia waiting to get X-rays at the emergency room.  As a new car, the Javelin did indeed have seatbelts and, to my amazement, neither of its occupants, a man and woman in their twenties, was badly hurt either. But they were sitting dazed and crying in a twisted mass of unidentifiable car wreckage that made me realize how close we had all come to sudden death.
When the State Highway Patrol arrived, I gave my version of what had happened to one trooper, while the driver of the other car gave his statement to another patrolman. The tall, burly officer who interviewed me said the on-scene evidence seemed to bear out what I had said. Seeing that he was—to the extent a policeman ever is—“on my side”, I took advantage of the opportunity to explain our situation: that Virginia was a foreign exchange student, that it was her last night in town, that I needed to get her home as quickly as possible, and so on. He gave no response, but within an incredibly short time, he had taken down our personal information and freed us to call my father to pick us up. I made the call from the conveniently located Army’s Wrecker and Salvage Service, which was just a hundred yards or so up the road, and to which both cars were temporarily towed.
My father always surprised me in situations like these. For more than forty years he suffered from what today is called “bipolar disorder” or “chemical imbalance.” Back then it was known as “manic depression”, which tended to make him an obsessive-compulsive worrier. But in situations such as these, he was always extraordinarily calm, collected and rational. When he picked us up, he asked about the accident, listened to my explanation, then said, “Well, all that matters is that neither of you got hurt. Too bad it had to be tonight.” He knew how much I was already missing Virginia, even though she was still here. He had married my mother toward the beginning of World War II and, a few short days later, had gone off to fight in the European Theater for three and a half years. He knew what it felt like to say good-bye and not know when or if you would see each other again. So when we got home, without a word, he handed me the keys to he and my mother’s second car.
I should have taken Virginia right home, but didn’t. Instead, I drove past the house where she was staying, out a little way into the countryside and parked off the side of the road. I lit cigarettes for both of us and we sat there smoking, holding hands and looking at each other, not knowing what to say. Then she said, in a quiet hoarse voice, “If my plane crashes, it won’t matter, because we will have had this time together.”
I was stunned. It was the first time I realized that she really believed we would never see each other again. And, truth be told, it was also the first time that I had realized how much I truly believed that we would. I knew we would and told her so. It wasn’t like I had a plan or anything. I simply had a gut feeling. I figured a relationship as star-crossed as this one couldn’t simply end because graduation and summer had come and it was time for her to go back home. Something would happen to bring us back together again. I said just that and, although she looked as if she wanted to believe me, she also looked at me as if I maybe belonged in a straightjacket. What kind of crazy, impractical optimist was I, to actually think there was any chance at all for a boy from a Midwestern farm town and a girl from Buenos Aires?
“You don’t believe me right now,” I said, “but you’d better get used to the idea. Before you know it, we’ll be seeing each other again.”


6 comments:

Joe Ballweg said...

As usual Dan, fine writing and a wonderful story. When my wife and I meet new couples, we often ask them to tell us the story of their first meeting. We always get some unique and fun responses, but none better than this.
If I ever get to meet Virginia, I really want to hear "her side of the story."

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for your kind comments, Joe!
Yes, after almost 44 years together, I don't pretend to speak for Virginia. But this is MY story...and I'm sticking to it! ;-)

jodi knoch said...

great story, had me from first word to the last. how wonderful to put the life we have on paper and to be able to relive it from the distance of time. love your work

Dan Newland said...

Thanks so much, Jodi. That really means a lot to me coming from you.

Paul Toth said...

I've been hoping for so long you would get to your "own work," Dan, as I knew you had this book in you. It's going to be better than a damn fine book, just as I'd expected, and I can't wait to buy a copy off the shelf...where it will soon be!

Dan Newland said...

Many thanks, Paul. Coming from a writer of your talent, a writer I admire, I feel both honored and challenged by your comments.